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Spellbinder (Chapter 9)

I he shoe was so incongruous that for an instant Thea thought her eyes must be playing tricks on her. It was the atmosphere here-the dim, echoing room with all its macabre booths. If she looked away and then looked back…

It was still there.

I should wait, I should call somebody. This could be something terrible. There are human authorities; I should at least wait for Eric….

Thea found herself moving in dreamlike, slow speed.

She took the edge of the oilcloth between finger and thumb and lifted it just an inch or so.

There was a leg attached to the shoe.

A blue-jeaned leg. Not part of a dummy. And another shoe.

Horror and adrenaline washed over Thea. And, strangely, that helped. Her first thought was. It's a person and she may be hurt. She went into emergency mode, slamming a wall between herself and her fear.

Hang on, are you okay, just let me see…

She pulled the rest of the oilcloth off, tugging to get it free. She saw legs, a body, curled fingers clutching the sleeve of a black-dressed witch dummy…

Then she saw the head and she reeled backward, both hands pressed over her mouth. She'd only gotten a glimpse, but the picture was burned into her mind.

Blue-gray face, hideously swollen. Grotesquely bulging eyes. Tongue like a sausage protruding from between black lips…

Thea's knees gave out.

She'd seen the dead before. She'd been to leave-taking ceremonies where the mortal remains of witches were returned to the earth. But those had been natural deaths, and the corpses had been peaceful. While this…

I think it was a boy. It had short hair and a flat chest. But there was no way to recognize the face. It was so distorted-didn't even look human….

He died violently. May his spirit be released; not held here by the need for revenge. Oh, Sekhmet, lion-headed goddess of Egypt; Mistress of Death, Opener of Ways, Sekhmet Who Reduceth to Silence…

Her disjointed thoughts were interrupted as sunlight fanned into the room. At the door, Eric shouted, "I'm back!"

Thea stood up. Her legs wanted to cave again. She opened her mouth, but what came out was a whisper. "Eric-"

He was hurrying toward her.  "What's wrong? Thea?"

"It's somebody dead."

She saw his eyes widen in absolute disbelief-and then he looked past her. He took a step toward the thing on the floor, stopped, crouched, and stared for a second. Then he whirled back and grabbed her as if he could somehow protect her from what he'd seen. "Don't look at it;  don't look over there," he gasped. "Oh, God, it's bad."   * "I know. I saw it." "It's bad; it's so bad…."

They were both holding on to each other. It was the only safety in this nightmare.

"He's dead. That guy is dead," Eric said. It was obvious, but Thea understood the need to babble. "There's nothing we can do for him. Oh, God, Thea, I think it's Kevin Imamura."

"Kevin?" Black dots danced in front of Thea's eyes. "No, it can't be-"

"I've seen him wearing that shirt before. And the hair… And he's on the committee to decorate this place. He must have been setting up that dummy." Thea's mind  showed  her a terrible picture. A crusted  dark  line  on  that  bloated  face-like the wound made by a slashing razor. And the soft black hair… Yes, it could have been Kevin. And that meant- Blaise.

"Come on," Eric was saying, his voice dazed and quenched. "We've got to tell the office."

Numbly, Thea let him guide her. Her mind was in another place.

Blaise. Did Blaise know… could Blaise have…

She didn't want to form the thought even to herself, but she couldn't help it. … finally gone all the way? Not just spilled blood, but taken a life?

It was forbidden to witches. But the Harmans were part lamia, and vampires sometimes killed for power. Could Blaise have gone that far into the darkness?

After they got to the office, things happened fast, but Thea couldn't really take it in. Activity whirled around her. The secretaries. The principal. The police. She was grateful for Eric, who kept telling the story over and over so she didn't have to.

I need to find Blaise.

They were back at the gym. The police were cordoning off the whole building with yellow tape. A throng of students and teachers was watching. Thea's eyes skimmed the crowd, but she didn't see Blaise anywhere.

Voices rose around her.

"I heard it was Kevin Imamura."

"Somebody said that guy from the dance came back and got him."

"Eric! Eric, did you really see him?"

Then one voice outshouted the others. "Hey, Mrs. Cheng, what about the Halloween party? Is the gym gonna be open by then?"

The principal, who had been huddled with a couple of police officers, turned around. Black hair riffling over her forehead in the breeze, she addressed the entire crowd.

"I don't know what is going to happen with the gym. There's been a tragedy, and now there's going to be an investigation. We'll just have to wait and see what comes of that. Now, I want everybody to go back to their classes. Teachers, please take your students back to your classrooms."

"I can't go back," Thea whispered. She and Eric were standing at a little distance from the thinning crowd. Everyone seemed to have forgotten about them.

"I'll take you home," Eric said immediately.

"No-I need to find Blaise. I have some things to ask her." She tried to make her stupefied brain work. "Eric, I should have told you this before. You've got to be careful."

"Of what?"

"Of Blaise."

He looked incredulous. "Thea…" He glanced at the old gym. "You can't think she had anything to do with-what happened to Kevin."

"I don't know. She could have had somebody do it-or made him do it himself." Thea kept her voice low. She looked straight into Eric's face, willing him to believe her. "Eric, I know you don't understand, but it's like I told you before. She's like Aphrodite. Or Medea. She laughs when she destroys things. Especially when she gets mad… and she's mad at you."

"Why?"

"Because you picked me instead of her-because I like you-lots of things. That doesn't matter. The point is that she may come after you. She may try to… seduce you. And"-Thea glanced at the bobbing yellow tape surrounding the old gym-"she may try to hurt you. So will you just be careful if you see her? Will you promise me that?"

Eric looked windblown and bewildered, but he nodded slowly. "I promise."

"Then I'll see you later. We still have things to talk about-but I have to find Blaise first."

She walked toward the crowd, leaving Eric standing there in the wind. She knew he was watching her.   .

A waving hand caught Thea's eye. It was Dani, her face full of sympathy and concern.

"Thea, are you all right?"

"Sort of." Thea gave a laugh she didn't recognize. "Have you seen Blaise around?"

Dani's soft little hand crept into hers. "She and Vivienne went home-I mean, to your place. I'll go back with you, if you want. You shouldn't be alone."

Thea squeezed her hand. "Thanks. I'd appreciate it." She was grateful-and relieved that Dani didn't hate her. "Dani-about the way I acted earlier…"

"Forget it. I don't know what I said, but I didn't mean to make you mad." She added gently, "Thea, are you really okay? Really? Because I don't want to upset you more…."

"Why?" And then: "What, Dani?"

"Your grandma's sick. That's why Blaise and Vivienne went home-Vivienne's mom paged her. She's a healer-Vivienne's mom, I mean-and I think she's taking your grandma to her house."

Thea was disturbed. Gran hadn't moved to Las Vegas for the same reason other Night People did. Lamia and made vampires came because so many of the humans here were transients-the kind that wouldn't be missed if they disappeared. Other witches came because of the power vortexes in the desert. But Gran had come because of the warm, dry climate. Her lungs had been bad since she was a kid. Please don't let it be serious, Thea kept thinking as Dani drove her home. She felt as if her skin had been rubbed too thin all over her body.

When they got to the shop, Gran was already gone. Tobias and Vivienne were downstairs. "Is she okay?" Thea asked. "Is it something bad?" "Not too bad," Tobias said. "She just kept getting dizzy today, and then she had a coughing fit and couldn't stop. She finally decided maybe she'd better get somebody to sing it out.  So she called Ms. Morrigan."

Oh, great-chanting. Just what Gran loved. But she must have been really sick to ask to have it done. "Can I call her?"

"I wouldn't," Vivienne put in. Her green eyes were kind, her voice reassuring. "I'm sure Mom's working on her by now, and when she does a singing, it takes all night. You shouldn't disturb them. But don't worry, Thea-my mom's really good."

"Yes-it's not that I'm worried about." Thea looked around distractedly, finally coming back to Vivienne's face. "Did you hear about what happened at school?"

"No." Vivienne looked mildly curious. "What happened?"

Instead of answering, Thea said, "Where's Blaise?"

"Upstairs packing. She's going to stay overnight at ray house. You can come, too-Thea?"

Thea was already racing up the stairs.

She burst into the bedroom she and Blaise shared. Blaise had a small suitcase open on her bed.

Thea didn't waste words. "Did you kill Kevin Imamura?"

Blaise dropped a black silk teddy. "Did I what? What are you talking about?"

"He's dead."

"And you thought I did it? Thanks a lot, but it's not him I want to kill." Blaise narrowed her eyes and Thea felt cold. Then she tilted her head. "So how did he die?"

"He was strangled. Somebody murdered him."

Blaise just raised her eyebrows and murmured, "Hm. I wonder where Randy is?" She held a shirt up, considered it, and added, "Do you want to come stay at Viv's with me? It's better than staying here by yourself."

"I don't know. Do I have to watch you to make sure Eric doesn't end up like Kevin?"

Blaise gave her a scorching look. "When I go after a boy, I get him first. I don't strangle him before the fun begins."

She slammed her suitcase closed and stalked out.

Thea sat on the bed.

In spite of her sharp words, Thea now knew Blaise hadn't done it. Her cousin had been genuinely surprised.

And Randy? I suppose it could have been, if he somehow got out of wherever they've taken him. He had a reason to hate Kevin. But…

The alternate explanation slid into place so quickly that Thea realized it must have been in her mind all along.

The spirit.

She sat there for an endless time, trying to think. It was like trying to find her way through a thick fog.

Gran's gone… and if she's sick I can't bother her anyway… of course, Blaise won't help… but I need to trust somebody….

Dani gently pushed the door open. "Can I come in?" When Thea nodded, she walked in and sat down on Blaise's bed.

"They left. I told Tobias to go too-he had a girlfriend he wanted to see. I'll stay here tonight, if you want."

Thea took a shaky breath. "Thanks, Dani."

"Look, Thea, I don't want to pry, but… are you okay? I mean, you're as pale as a corpse-" Dani bit her lip. "Sorry, bad choice of words. But I am your friend, and if there's anything I can do, I'd like to help."

Another breath. Then Thea made her decision.

"I worked a forbidden spell."

Dani looked shocked, but not appalled. "Which one?"

"Calling back the spirits."

When Dani didn't scream or faint, Thea told the whole story. All about her summoning-everything except why she'd been doing it. "And now I'm scared," she finished. "I let something out yesterday, and today Kevin gets murdered. Blaise didn't kill him. She thinks Randy may be involved, but…" Thea shook her head.

"But, Thea, be logical. Why should it have anything to do with your spell?" Dani's rational voice was soothing. "You let someone out, not something. The elders summon the ancestors all the time without anything bad happening. You just feel guilty because you know you weren't supposed to be doing it."

"No. Dani, I can't explain it, but the thing I let out-it wasn't friendly. It knocked Blaise and me down. None of the spirits I saw the elders summon ever did that."

"Well…" Dani looked doubtful. "But why would one of the ancestors went to murder a human?"

"I don't know." Somehow talking about it had cleared Thea's mind. She said slowly, "But… maybe the book would tell us."

Ten minutes later, they were sitting side by side on Thea's bed, with the iron chest on the floor and the book between them.

"First, could you tell anything about the amulet that fell in the fire?" Dani asked in scientific tones. "Like, if the hair was gray, it could mean-"

"The witch was old." Thea caught on immediately. "No, it wasn't gray or white. It was dark-sort of like mahogany." She closed her eyes, trying to remember.

"It all happened so fast-but I think it was long. It was doubled up lots of times in the clay."

"So maybe a woman."

"Yes." Thea read for several minutes. "Wait a minute. Look at this."

" 'Suzanne Blanchet,' " Dani read with difficulty. " 'Bom sixteen thirty-four in Esgavans on the day that they made bonfires for the peace between France and Spain. Tried sixteen fifty-three at Ron-chain, prisoner at the court of Rieux.' "

"And listen to the charges," Thea said grimly. " 'Bewitching men's corn, killing cattle, bringing hunger into the country, and strangling babies at night with her long hair.' "

"Strangling," Dani breathed.

"She denied it, so they tortured her. Listen: 'Being a little stretched on the rack, she screamed ceaselessly that she was not a witch, but being more tightly stretched, said that it was true.' "

"And then they tortured her family," Dani said, her finger skimming the lines. "Oh, Isis, look at this. She had a ten-year-old brother named Clement and a six-year-old sister named Lucienne. They tortured them both."

"And burned them." Thea had begun to tremble involuntarily. The room wasn't cold, but she had a feeling like ice deep inside her. "Look. 'The children having been promised the mercy of being strangled before burning, but the executioner not having been paid, they were committed alive to the flames…'." She couldn't finish.

" '… before the eyes of their sister,' " Dani whispered. She was shaking, too, and huddling close to Thea. "How could they do that?"

"I don't know," Thea said flatly.

"I mean, no wonder Night World laws are so strict. No wonder we have to keep ourselves a secret-look at what they do to us when they find out." | Thea swallowed-she didn't want to think about Night World rules. "And then they burned Suzanne," she said quietly, keeping her eyes on the book. " 'Being consigned to the fire, she uttered several exclamations, crying out upon revenge.' "

"I would too," Dani said, her soft voice threaded with steel. "I'd come back and kill them."

She stopped and she and Thea looked at each other.

"And maybe that's just what she did," Thea said slowly. "Only she couldn't get to her torturers. But she found something that looked similar-a reproduction torture chamber. And there was Kevin, doing something to a witch dummy-hanging it, maybe. Maybe treating it in some way that reminded her of…" Thea nodded toward the book. "Anyway, doing something that made her lose it."

"And kill him. By strangling him-what she'd been accused of doing. Thea?" Dani grimaced, then went on. "When you saw Kevin's body-was there anything around his neck?"

Thea stared at the window curtains, trying to remember. That awful bloated face… the protruding tongue… and dark bruises on the throat.

"No," she said softly. "There were marks-but whatever strangled him was gone."

"She took it with her." Dani shivered, then put both hands on the book. "Or maybe not. Look, Thea, this may make a great bonfire story, but, really, it's all speculation.''

Thea was staring at the yellowed page beneath Dani's fingers. "I don't think so," she said quietly. "See this symbol by Suzanne Blanchet's name? I recognize it. I saw it for just a second-on the amulet in the fire." "You're sure?"

Thea looked away. "Yeah. It's her, Dani. And it's my fault. I let her out… and now she's killing people. Because of me, somebody's dead."

It was only when she said it that the full realization hit-as if forming the words had somehow made it true. Kevin was dead. He wasn't going to school anymore, he wasn't going to get a chance to repair his Porsche. He wouldn't ever smile at a girl again. He'd lost everything a person had to lose.

"And I just-I just feel so bad," Thea said. The ache in her throat rose up in a sort of spasm, as if she were going to be sick. But what came out was tears. Dani held her while she sobbed. And at last, when Thea was crying more quietly, she said, "You didn't know. You didn't mean to do anything bad. You were just playing around and it went wrong. You didn't know."

"It doesn't matter." Thea wiped her face on her sleeve, sitting up. The ache in her chest was duller now, and she was slowly realizing that something else was there, something that felt hot and bright. A need to act.

"It doesn't matter," she said again. "I still made it happen. But I'll tell you one thing-I'm not going to let it keep happening. I've got to stop her. Which means I've got to send her back."

"I'm with you there," Dani said, her small jaw set in determination. "But how?"

Thea stared at the wall a moment, then said, "I have an idea."

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